Interestingly, the very first performance of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair was on Halloween. Of course, it is imperative to realize that Halloween wasn’t the same in 1614 as it is today. Even so, Ben Jonson—who briefly enjoyed stature as a playwright exceeding his contemporary Shakespeare—might well have spent the rest of his life haunted by the mounting of his Altmanesque comedy following the misadventures and assorted complications of a variety of idiosyncratic characters during the celebrated Smithfield Fair commemorating St. Bartholomew’s Day? What was so potentially frightful about this performance?
Well, it wasn’t the performance so much as it was the play itself. The conventional wisdom of most scholars, academics and assorted other experts on these type of things is that Jonson never again attained the heights of artistry of this or any other of his most highly regarded works. From October 31, 1614 onward, in other things, it was all downhill.
The comparison of Bartholomew Fair to a Robert Altman film like MASH, A Wedding or—especially—Nashville is apt. What Ben Jonson does in this play is situate a memorable cast of characters that includes a Barney Fife-esque justice of the peace, balladeers, pickpockets, fortune-hunting bounders, pious Puritans and pretty much every other type of con artist and carny scammer that usually show up where such oblivious crowds congregate. The fair becomes a microcosm, in other words, and in that respect truly can be said to be not at all far removed from the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital or the commingling of the various arms of the political and entertainment scene in Nashville during a specific time and place in the American election cycle. All those exaggerated character types come together as a representatives of something much bigger: they are the inhabitants of the city of London during the Renaissance the manner in which they interact with each other and their stories become intertwined all exist to serve the very specific purpose of allowing Ben Jonson to indulge his talent for satirically stripping away the pretenses of all their moral and ethical shortcomings.
Since Bartholomew Fair is a comedy, of course, the fair winds down with nobody suffering particularly because they all share collectively in the folly of being human.